How J.R.R. Tolkien Redefined Fantasy Stories

This article, and others about one of the most celebrated writers, is featured in Newsweek's Special Edition: J.R.R. Tolkien—The Mind of a Genius.

Scholars, academics and casual enthusiasts have spilled tons of ink (both of the real and virtual varieties) about the exact definition of fantasy (does an epic poem such as Beowulf count?) and the genre’s origins (do Greek myths qualify? Romantic poems from the Middle Ages?). But the overwhelming influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the genre remains a fundamental certainty. The British author didn’t invent fantasy, but he defined it in the minds of millions with his seminal works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The contributions contained in those novels set a template still followed by writers of fantasy, a genre that has only ballooned in popularity since Tolkien’s day, largely due to the author’s phenomenal success. Not only do fantasy books top bestseller lists around the world, but the genre’s reach has extended beyond the printed page to movies and television, with HBO’s Game of Thrones (based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books) becoming a cultural touchstone for the 21st century and blockbusters such as the Harry Potter films—not to mention Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s books—cleaning up at the box office, with the combined box-office gross of those franchises topping $4 billion. All of this is the unintended consequence of Tolkien’s phenomenal success as an author and artist.

Tolkien’s first mark on the genre came with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937. Although shorter and more light-hearted than its epic big brother The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s first novel casts a long shadow of its own, redefining the idea of children’s fantasy.

“What Tolkien does is take the ‘otherworld’ fantasy developed in the 19th century and makes it child-sized, melding it with folklore and Norse myth,” says Farah Mendlesohn, a scholar of science fiction and fantasy and author of Rhetorics of Fantasy. “That doesn’t sound terribly radical, but it was an absolute change.” In contrast to stories such as P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins or L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, a sense of consequence and reality permeated the world of Bilbo Baggins, despite the inclusion of magic rings and dragons.

FHPAA0 Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, with the baby Drogon perched on her shoulder, in a still from HBO’s Game of Thrones. The series garnered an average of 25.1 million viewers for its sixth season, a stunning testament to the popularity of a genre that mostly existed on the fringes of popular culture before Tolkien. AF ARCHIVE/ALAMY

The original Hobbit’s Dwarven companions are wandering exiles on a mission to recapture their kingdom, and the story ends with a political standoff between Elves, Dwarves and the Men of Laketown that only resolves with the appearance of an Orc army. “Tolkien doesn’t play with the kind of whimsy a lot of American fantasy writers, such as E.B. White, did,” says Mendlesohn. He also populated his world with characters who grew and changed with the plot, a departure from the more established style at the time in which the protagonist—such as Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—experiences a smorgasbord of outlandish adventures, but remains a static figure. “What Tolkien does in that book is create a sense of learning in the characters,” Mendlesohn says. “You have a character arc in Bilbo that’s tied to the experience of a strange world, which was quite new.”

Anyone familiar with the exploits of Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen can attest to Tolkien’s influence on what is now called Young Adult fiction, a genre built upon readers getting sucked into complete, fully fabricated worlds and empathizing with a protagonist who grows and gives a sense of progression.

If The Hobbit was a hint at the shape of things to come, The Lord of the Rings unabashedly heralded fantasy’s future. The already richly imagined world of The Hobbit not only expanded in scope but was also given even more depth with characters reciting poems honoring battles thousands of years in their past and hinting at histories that felt as real as our own. The story of a group of flawed, if ultimately good-hearted, allies banding together to combat an ancient and powerful evil proved so popular it’s story beats have been struck time and again by fantasy authors ever since—some more blatantly than others.

Author Terry Brooks, for example, who has written 11 fantasy novels in his Shannara series, wrote in the annotated edition of The Sword of Shannara, “I drew on inspiration from the European adventure storytellers Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexander Dumas, but it was only after reading The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien that I realized the fantasy genre held the ground tapestry I needed to tell the tale of The Sword of Shannara.”

Even when fantasy authors purposely eschew the expected plot of “good guys fight the evil Dark Lord,” they’re aware they’re bucking the trend. “Ruling is hard,” George R. R. Martin said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with.” Martin’s grim and gruesome world, filled with explicit descriptions of murder, rape and betrayal, may be his refutation of Tolkien’s opus, but there’s no doubt Martin’s wildly popular work—in addition to countless others created since Tolkien’s time—wouldn’t exist without the sentence: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”

This article, written by Issue Editor James Ellis, was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition: J.R.R. Tolkien—The Mind of a Genius. For more on the man who crafted one of fiction's most influential worlds, pick up a copy today.

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